Recovering a "Lost" Story Using Oral History: The United States Supreme Court's Historic Green V. New Kent County, Virginia, Decision

Article excerpt

Abstract In 1965, New Kent County, located just east of Richmond, Virginia, became the setting for the one of the most important school desegregation cases since Brown v. Board of Education. Ten years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared "separate but equal" unconstitutional, both public schools in New Kent, the George W. Watkins School for blacks and the New Kent School for whites, remained segregated. In 1965, however, local blacks and the Virginia State NAACP initiated a legal challenge to segregated schools, hoping to initiate desegregation where the process had yet to begin and to accelerate the process in areas where token desegregation was the norm. In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Charles C. Green v. the School Board of New Kent County forced New Kent County and localities across the state and nation to fulfill the promise of Brown. While the case has been part of the court records since it was decided in 1968, it has remained largely unknown to the general public and many scholars of the era. This article is an attempt to use the tool of oral history to present the people and the story behind Green v. New Kent County and to add another piece to the puzzle that was school desegregation in this country.

Keywords: African American, Desegregation, Civil Rights, Injustice, NAACP

Introduction

In 2000 the National Park Service published a theme study titled "Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States." Authorized by Congress, the study surveyed sites across the country "that best exemplify and illustrate the historical movement to provide for a racially nondiscriminatory education." (1) Two of the sites investigated were the George W. Watkins School and the New Kent School, both located in rural New Kent County, Virginia. In 1965, these two schools, one black and one white, set the stage for what would be one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions since Brown v. Board of Education. (2)

The story behind the case intrigued Dr. John Sprinkle, a Virginia native and supervisory historian for the National Park Service. It was fascinating not only for its importance in terms of U.S. school integration, but perhaps more so because no one knew much about the decision. (3) Sprinkle and his staff decided that the Green case deserved additional investigation. It would make an excellent addition to the Park Service's nationally recognized education program, "Teaching With Historic Places." (4)

To research the case and develop a lesson plan for schoolteachers nationwide to address the Green case, Sprinkle and the Park Service applied for and received a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy (VFHPP) in Charlottesville, Virginia. At Sprinkle's request, Professor James Whittenburg, Chair of the History Department at the College of William and Mary, contacted three graduate students interested in civil rights to take part.

These doctoral candidates, authors Jody L. Allen and Brian J. Daugherity, along with Sarah Trembanis, worked with three New Kent High School students and a variety of individuals involved in the Green lawsuit to complete the lesson plan. The group consulted newspaper and county records, interviewed participants, and pieced together the story behind this historic decision. The Park Service posted the lesson plan, completed in 2001, on the "Teaching With Historic Places" web site, where teachers all over the world can access it to educate students about this important case. (5)

With this initial phase of the project completed, the authors decided to continue working on the New Kent story. Over the course of the next several years, we obtained additional grant funding and conducted an oral history project related to the Green case and school desegregation in New Kent County, hoping that our work might form the basis for a future documentary film on the Green case. (6) Partnering with a local video production company, we recorded thirteen interviews on audio and digital videotape in 2002. …